Coaching & Developing Athletes: Transform How You Lead

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

Coaching Today’s Athletes

A question that seems to be pretty common when presenting on such topics as athlete development, sport psychology, and coaching education is, “What do you think about the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ philosophy?” The short answer is that I do not agree with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy. Life requires more than just showing up and then being rewarded.

I see a few problems with this:

1. This philosophy and perspective do not help prepare the next generation of young athletes for the real world. Life is hard! Challenges and failures happen and are a part of life. It is part of the human experience. However, it is how we learn to work through those challenges and failures and continue to move forward in which we hone the skills to be successful in our sport, in jobs, in marriages, and in our families.

2. Giving kids a trophy just for showing up devalues the trophy. Kids are smart. Kids know when the trophy is not necessarily symbolic of their hard work and dedication. Kids know when they are not as good at throwing or catching as their friend. Kids need to know that differences are okay and are part of being on a team. Challenges and failures help us understand what kids need to be taught so that they can experience improvement and success.

As coaches, teachers, and parents, we walk with athletes on their journeys. We have to let young athletes go through their failures, experience hard times, and help them keep moving forward in their life journey in spite of the challenges they face. It is our job as coaches, teachers, and parents to give young athletes the tools, so they can better navigate challenges and manage their life. This is autonomy. Giving young athletes choice, allowing choices, and living with consequences help them learn this process.

Let’s be upfront right now and admit our young athletes have not raised and do not coach themselves. Kids live, learn, experience, and absorb the environment around them. Our young athletes absorb messages from parents, coaches, teachers, and media. Kids consciously and unconsciously begin to shape themselves to fit into their environments.

Researcher and author, Jean Twenge, cites in her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before, that “Young people today have to overcome many difficult challenges. We have such higher expectations for our young kids. ‘Good’ is no longer good enough.”

I think we can all agree that good is no longer good enough. The pressure on young athletes to “brand” themselves comes very early, especially in sport. This, combined with an increasingly competitive and get-ahead sport environment, has led to a darker flip side. This is an environment where coaches, parents, and athletes blame each other for their problems and credit only themselves for their success. Why? Young athletes do not know and have not been taught how to manage all of the external pressure. Many young people today have been taught to put their own needs first and to do what is best for them so that they “feel good.” However, this perspective is not conductive to following social rules nor does it help in supporting the team’s needs over the individuals.

Here is a case study example of an athlete with the “feel good/me first” mentality involving the common conflicting decision to focus on club sports/travel ball instead of high school sports, which many thinks will advance their athletic career faster. In this case study, we have a young athlete who chooses not to play his sport with his friends on his high school team, playing only on a club team. He goes to college, stays two years then transfers to another college because he is not getting the playing time he wants and thinks he deserves. He does not get along well with his teammates and coaches, and he blames them for his failures.

In this example, the young athlete will need a lot of relationship work to get him to be a team player and connect with his teammates. It will also take a lot of re-wiring and a change in perspective to better understand team goals and togetherness. Team relationships and peer connection have not felt natural to him in sport. To be a leader and a good teammate requires the ability to relate and connect to all members of the team. How would you help this young athlete? I believe he would have been better served to learn team building skills and with that, how to build positive relationships earlier in life and in sport.

The next generation of kids are smart kids! We do not give them enough credit with their understanding of the world and of technology unless they need to help us set up our new iPhone. Nevertheless, technology has also been the source of the world moving and advancing very quickly. We adults, parents, and coaches have not had time to reflect on the impact that it has had on the next generation. These kids did not create the iPhone; they have grown up with the iPhone. It is my belief that technology has shifted many of our young athletes from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation.

An example of this shift is the focus and perceived importance that young people have about how many followers they have on Instagram. They are concerned – and some, obsessed – with how many likes they get on their photos, as opposed to how many life-giving, deep, meaningful friendships they have. Young people today have issues knowing how to build friendships. I asked a group of 18-year-old college freshmen in one of the classes I teach about their true friendships. I asked if they have a best friend and if they believe they have friends in their life that they can trust. They shared with me how hard it is to build friendships and to know whom they can trust. Most reported not having a best friend they could trust.

Sports give young people the opportunity to build long-lasting friendships. In sports, we see ourselves, friends and teammates experience success and failure. We see the results of working hard and pushing our own limits. In sports and in a team, we see each other’s vulnerability. Through this vulnerability, we have the opportunity to bond, to learn, to grow, to encourage, and to celebrate success together. We also learn how to deal with our own failure, conflict, and frustration, and to help others through theirs.

How can we help answer this challenge to the next generation?

Twenge’s perspective is to ditch the self-esteem movement. From her research, she believes that this can lead to the self-centeredness, self-absorption, and narcissism, which are linked to aggression and poor relationships with others (Twenge, 2014). Based on this research, there should be no more sport trophies for participation; life requires more than just showing up. We should reward performance, effort, and consideration for others, not just participation. Twenge suggests instead that the focus shift from “feeling good” and “take care of yourself” to learning self-control and understanding delayed gratification. Focus on the good behavior and performance skills that lead to success. Kids also need to learn how to control their emotions and reactions through self-regulation - more about this in my next blog post.

Reflection questions:

1. How do you cultivate realistic expectations based on the age and developmental level of the child?

2. How do you as a coach, adult, and parent understand the delicate balance of positive praise and false praise? (Example: I like the way you talked to Robert after he struck out. You did a nice job with that catch; you had your glove in the right position.)

3. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Ashley Merryman suggests that there are only three trophies needed in baseball: 1. Best Overall 2. Most Improved 3. Best Sportsmanship. Do you agree? Are there others you would add?

4. How do you model, teach, and reward self-control and hard work?

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry, and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.